The Importance of Positive Self Talk When Mountain Biking

I think Henry Ford said it best: “Whether you think you can, or think you can’t. You’re right.”

Self talk has a positive or negative effect on your mountain biking performance and your ability to handle technical aspects of a trail or race course. If you roll up to every obstacle on the trail and think, “Holy $&@# — I’m gonna crash,” guess what? You’re probably going to crash. Replacing these negative statements with positive self talk can go a long way toward helping you take your riding (and training) to the next level.

Photo: Jerry Hazard
Photo: Jerry Hazard

I’m not proposing that you should go launch off a 20-foot drop with a “I’m gonna land this thing perfect” statement unless, of course, you’ve had the training and progressions required to prepare you for that drop. Note: Positive self talk is not a replacement for skills training; it allows you to use your skill set effectively.

It is also a way to allow you to have more success and avoid self sabotage, or self-fulfilling prophecies. If you believe in yourself (really, really believe), and trust the training and experience you’ve obtained to prepare you for this moment in your ride, you’ll have much higher odds of success.

Here are some other tips to help you get the best results when dealing with technical aspects of a trail.

1. Get in your ready position. Head up, knees out, off the saddle, etc. Feel strong, breath deep, look fierce. This will have a dramatic influence on your ability to handle the task at hand.

2. Use positive self talk. Get passionate about it–say it like you mean it! Saying things like, “I’m ready for this,” and “I can handle this” sends messages to your brain and body to get ready for success.

3. Visualize yourself doing the skills successfully. Before hitting that jump, get off your bike and look at the jump. Visualize your take off, time in the air, and smooth landing. Once you’ve got it in your head, go for it!

4. Think back to a time when you had previous success with the same or a similar skill. Embrace the feelings of success you felt in the past. Allow the feelings associated with your previous success to prepare you for the task or obstacle you’re about to tackle.

Photo: Jerry Hazard
Photo: Jerry Hazard

Replacing “I can’t” with “I’ve got this” does a lot for your confidence. When things get stressful, replace “F this, I hate my mountain bike,” with “Relax, breathe, ready position, let it roll.”

Positive self-talk isn’t just effective with technical aspects of the trail–it can also have a great effect on fitness performance. A recent study showed that positive self-talk can reduce time taken to complete a 10km time trial. This study is nicely summarized here by Yann Le Meur. Another study showed that positive self-talk can increase time to exhaustion, summarized again by Yann Le Meur here.

Photo: Derek Hermon
Photo: Derek Hermon

Rate of perceived exertion (RPE, how hard you think you’re working) is important in endurance sports. Reducing it through positive self-talk is a great way to improve performance. Swapping in a few phrases such as, “I’m killing it today,” “I feel powerful,” and “My legs feel great,” at key moments can be an easy way to add more miles and/or more watts.

Here’s a great example form Ian Sharman, winner of the 2013 Leadville Trail 100-Mile Run and holder of the fastest 100-mile trail time in the U.S. (12 hours, 44 minutes):

“If someone is on my heels or just ahead, then I keep repeating in my head, ‘Just keep pushing.’ It stops me from easing off even a little bit so that if I slow or if the terrain gets easier, I kick it up a notch. Having someone close in a race like that is the biggest motivator for me near the end of a race like Western States.

When I feel exhausted and there’s still so far to go, I remind myself that this is what all the hard training is for–to be able to close out races and not fade. I repeat to myself that this is where the memories will be made and that I can either look back on it and know I gave up or look back and know I gave it everything.”

I often use the statement, “bike is ready, I’m ready.” Other famous positive self talk statements you may have heard from accomplished athletes are “Be brave!” and “Shut up legs!” Before your next ride, sit down and think about 10 or so positive statements you can incorporate in your self talk. If you have one you really like, perhaps print it out and stick it to your handle bars, or write it on your hand before your event!

Your Turn: Do you have a personal self talk statement you want to share? Post it in the comments section below!

Richard La China is Professional XC MTB racer and a USA Cycling-certified coach who works with beginner to pro Xterra athletes and XC racers as well as non-competitive recreational riders. To get more riding and skills tips, subscribe to the free Ninja Mountain Bike Skills newsletter.